Good Reads: Mom's Cookbook Collection – A Selection of Favorites
Writer & Photographer: Jane Fraipont
One of my favorite parts of visiting home–after the company of my family–is going through my mother’s cookbooks. She loves to cook and always follows a recipe from her collection of cookbooks, which takes up a whole bookshelf. My family rarely eats out, so a change in cuisine or an especially exciting meal is usually the result of my mom employing a new recipe, or my taking over in the kitchen. While I tend to improvise a bit more than she does and rely on multiple different recipes for inspiration when cooking, I’ve come to appreciate my mom’s cookbooks more after coming to college. I learned most cooking and baking techniques from certain recipes I watched her make: how long to cook a tomato sauce, how to make a perfectly glossy pan sauce, how to assemble a cake or cookie batter in the correct order, how to tell when whipped cream or egg whites have soft or stiff peaks, or how to poach an egg perfectly.
Going through the cookbooks, I came across the recipes which taught me these skills, all accompanied by my mother’s short, handwritten notes in the margins that evaluated each recipe she made: “Great!”; “Fine”; “Jane loved it!”; “Use more salt”; “Increase cook time to 45 min”; “Kids didn’t like it.” Some of her cookbooks have more positive notes than others, and some have been so well-used that their oil and sauce-stained pages have started to tear away from the spine.
The cookbooks that follow are a small selection of the books that have been most loved by me and my mother, be it for their reliability, creativity, or quality of instruction. I think that as a set, this selection provides a fantastic baseline for someone who wants to master the basics of Italian, French, and American cuisine. I’ve included some of the recipes that I think are the most memorable, most often cooked, and most enjoyed by my family, and which I think provide a good representation of each book.
I Know How to Cook//Ginette Mathiot
Cuisine Style: French
Date of publishing: 1932
This book is known as the French Bible of home cooking, newly translated into English. Certainly biblical in size, it is a collection of basic French recipes with a few accompanying pictures but limited descriptions. This is not the ideal beginner’s cookbook, as its instructions are somewhat lacking and function more as guides for the recipes. Despite its bare-bones nature, this cookbook is fantastic for inspiration and as a source of reference, with scores of recipes organized by course (hors d’oeuvres, soup, fish, vegetables & salads, fruit, cakes & pastries) and ingredient. Its collection of different sauces--roux-based or jus-based--is stunning and goes on for pages. There’s one for any occasion!
Julienne soup, bright and full of fresh vegetables; wonderful for spring
Veal Medallions, with a rich cognac and mushroom sauce
Sea Bream à la Monaco, a simple and light method to poach fish
Fruit bavarois, a soft mouse with multiple variations
Twelve Recipes//Cal Peternell
Cuisine style: American
Date of Publishing: 2014
This book, part essay collection and part recipe book, is a set of variations on 12 basic recipes. The recipes are meant to form a foundation of basic staples which will teach a person the techniques needed to experiment with them. These base recipes are as follows: toast, eggs, beans, salads and dressings, pasta with tomato, pasta (other), rice/polenta/mashed potatoes, vegetables (broiled/roasted/sautéed/in soups), roasted chicken, braising, grilling, three sauces, and cake. I think this is a great starter cookbook as it illustrates how to change a recipe based on the ingredients you have, and incorporates flavors from different global cuisines. Additionally, Peternell’s anecdotes, interspersed throughout the text, give the recipes more personality and depth.
Ribollita, a summery soup not unlike a minestrone
Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen// Lidia Matticchio Bastianich
Cuisine style: Italian-American
Date of publishing: 2001
A classic! Probably one of my mom’s favorites, this book was the source of many dishes I grew up eating. My mother has about five cookbooks by Lidia, but this is her most loved-- evident by the fact that its pages are falling off its spine. These recipes are hearty and-- for the most part--simple. They are perfect for weeknight meals or for hosting, as the recipes usually serve 4-6 people. This book is more Italian-American than traditional Italian, as some techniques and ingredients have been changed to make the recipes simpler, but without sacrificing flavor. The instructions ar simple, clear, and comprehensive, well suited for beginners as well as those who’ve been cooking for years.
Roasted Pepper halves with bread crumb topping, a side dish that can be prepared in less than ten minutes
Penne alla vodka
Scallopine Saltimbocca, Roman-style, braised with prosciutto, sage, and white wine
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking// Marcella Hazan
Cuisine style: Italian
Date of publishing: 1992
My mom swears that this is the best cookbook ever. She’s certainly not alone in this opinion, as it has been widely lauded by critics and home cooks, alike. It’s not hard to tell why this volume is so well loved-- the recipes are simple, Italian classics without pretension or added frills. Going through this cookbook again, I've realized how many of the recipes that my mom makes weekly have come out of this indispensable book. For someone who wants to learn to cook Italian food, this book is a perfect place to start.
Amatriciana, a tomato sauce with pancetta and chili pepper
Bolognese Meat Sauce, a classic recipe that’s a day’s project
Roast Chicken with Lemons
Oven-browned tomatoes, or “candy tomatoes” as my dad calls them
Baking: From my Home to Yours//Dorie Greenspan
Cuisine style: American, baking
Date of publishing: 2006
This was the first cookbook of my mother’s that I read and cooked out of. I learned how to bake before I learned how to cook, and this is a wonderful beginner’s book. It has clear instructions, describes what the ingredients ought to look like at each step, and includes tips of how to troubleshoot along the way. I love this book because it anticipates any possible questions I may have-- What do I do if it looks like my frosting has split? What can I replace certain ingredients with? How long will leftovers keep? The recipes are not the most imaginative, but are extremely trustworthy and always include interesting variations. I would strongly recommend this cookbook to anyone who wants to learn how to bake classic American recipes.
Brownie buttons, an elegant cross between a brownie and a mini cupcake
World peace cookies, a chocolate shortbread heavy on the salt!
Swedish visiting cake, the first cake I ever made by myself
Bill’s Big carrot cake, a delicious beast